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Remembering The Norton Creek Disaster And The Deaths Of Two Friends

by Gary M. Watts (McCall ’64) |

I am sitting here, in my home in Southern California, poring over a map. The map is a product of the United States Department of Interior Geological Survey. It is a 7.5-minute (topological) titled “Pungo Mountain, Idaho.”

In the southwest corner of the map, the Middle Fork of the Salmon River snakes roughly from southwest to northeast. Situated on a bluff north of and overlooking the river is Indian Creek Landing Field. The runway runs east to west, is about 5,000 feet long and lies at about 4,700 feet elevation. At the western end of the runway, several buildings make up the Indian Creek Guard Station.

About 200 yards north of the center of the runway, there is a grave marked on the map. I helped dig that grave.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Day One
The story begins on Friday morning, July 9, 1965. It was a beautiful morning in McCall, Idaho; my spirits were very high as a second-year smokejumper.

The four training jumps the week before had gone well, and a long Fourth of July weekend at the bottom of the jump list had been a very enjoyable road trip to San Francisco in Jon Petterson’s (MYC-64) Triumph TR-3. Carl Brown (MYC-65) and I alternated between the passenger seat and curled up behind the seats. It was uncomfortable, but so what? We were smokejumpers! Invincible, titans of testosterone in White brand boots!

But that trip is another story.

After a hearty breakfast at the smokejumpers buffet that made Denny’s look like a soup kitchen, we played a few games of jungle-rules volleyball while management sorted out the work details, and then hung out around the loft waiting for assignments.

It wasn’t long before the fire buzzer went off with so many buzzes I lost track, so I hung around to see if I was going somewhere.

I wasn’t, but I was now near the top of the jump list.

The fire call was for 16 jumpers on the Payette National Forest; they left immediately to load their equipment on the Johnson Flying Service DC-3 (the Doug).

The top four on the jump list were now Jim Tracy (MYC-61), Ron Maki (MYC-64), Mike Kohlhoff (MYC-64) and me.

It wasn’t until after lunch that our work party finally went to work; we were digging holes alongside the runway of the McCall Airport – something to do with runway lights, exactly what has been lost to history after 46 years.

I do remember, though, several airplanes dipping down on final approach over the small rise at the north end of the runway and landing straight toward us.

It was getting late in the afternoon when the green Forest Service truck towing the equipment trailer, with our jump bags already loaded aboard, skidded to a dusty stop beside us.

Moose stuck his head out the window, green baseball cap, coke-bottle glasses, lantern jaw and the big Ken Salyer (MYC-54) grin. “Hop in, guys. We’ve got a fire!”

We jumped in back and leaving a rooster tail of dust, Moose drove the truck around the airfield perimeter and pulled up beside the silver and blue, Johnson Flying Service twin-engine Beechcraft (military designation: C-45), known as the “Beech.”

The pilot, Byron “Skip” Knapp III, bounced out of the passenger seat, climbed into the plane, and went up to the cockpit to do his checklists, look over his maps to locate the fire, and plan a route to get us there. Skip was a former Air Force jet fighter pilot with 1,266 total hours but only 72 hours in the Beech. He was well liked among the jumpers, known as eager and enthusiastic.

Skip was born and raised in a suburb of Chicago but was a country boy at heart. After high school, he attended the University of Idaho for two years, then transferred to the University of Florida where he received a degree in Forest Management and a commission in the Air Force.

While waiting to begin flight training, Skip met, and after a whirlwind romance, married Pat McNerny.

At the completion of his military service, Skip and Pat, now with four young sons, returned to Florida where Skip managed his parent’s citrus grove and owned a charter flying service.

When the grove was sold in 1964, he entered the job market and soon had the choice between being a United Airlines pilot or going with Johnson Flying Service and flying smokejumpers out of McCall, Idaho. Skip, Pat and the boys chose the wilds of Idaho.

As Moose loaded our equipment aboard the plane, we jumpers zipped ourselves into the heavy nylon jumpsuits, then helped each other into our parachutes – taking extra care to cinch the harness tightly against the crotch webbing to prevent opening-shock falsetto syndrome.

We put on our mesh-faced helmets (mine was a brown leather, vintage Knute Rockne-style that looked funny but fit like a glove, and I loved it like a pet hound) and waddled up to the airplane in reverse jump order. We put our knees on the aircraft’s deck and Moose, already wearing his spotter’s chute, boosted us through the hatch and inside the Beech. We scuttled forward, took our seats on the wooden benches and began the wait.

It took about 25 minutes to reach the fire; a bumpy 25 minutes. Skip began to circle as Moose studied the wind, terrain and progress of the fire. He was hanging halfway out of the airplane, and I was again amazed at the sheer strength of the man.

He was huge and solid – hence the name “Moose” – and had the tight, muscular build of a wrestler. He had been a national wrestling champion in high school in Waterloo, Iowa, and during the school year he was a wrestling and football coach at Fairmont Junior High School in Boise. Salyer had been a smokejumper for 12 years and had 57 career fire jumps.

Over the fire, Moose leaned way out and threw down two crêpe-paper streamers in quick succession, then flopped on his belly to watch the streamers through the Plexiglas window built into the belly of the Beech. He wasn’t happy with the direction the streamers were taking, and he told Skip over the headset to set up for another streamer drop.

The results of the second streamer drop were similar to the first and Moose got on the headset with Skip, who had been talking to the dispatcher in McCall, and discussed the pros and cons of attempting to jump on this fire because of the high, gusty winds and the late time of day. They decided to go ahead with the jump.

By this time my excitement level was way up there. It’s been said that anyone who would jump out of a perfectly good airplane has to be crazy. It’s also been said that smokejumpers are thrill-seekers. I think it’s a minor adrenaline issue. But that’s just my opinion.

Moose decided to let us in on what was going on: “The winds are really strong down there,” he yelled at us over the air stream and engine noise. “But the terrain’s not too bad, and the fire is on the ridge line spreading pretty fast, so I’m going to put all four of you on that fire.”


“The winds are strong and gusting from all directions.”

Moose looked very concerned. My fun meter dropped off a couple of points.

“Watch out,” he continued, “for bad downdrafts on the downwind side of the ridge.”

He looked at each of us through his thick glasses. “Okay?”

I’m sure we all nodded in agreement. At least I don’t remember any questions or complaints.

“All right – let’s do it,” Moose yelled as he helped Jim Tracy into a sitting position with his legs hanging out the port side of the airplane.

Skip flew a wide circle and lined up with the fire with Moose giving him a few last-minute corrections. A slap on the back and suddenly Jim was gone.

Moose reeled in the static line and chute bag, then helped Ron Maki into the open doorway.

It wasn’t long before Ron was gone and I was sitting in the doorway, the air stream roaring through my brown leather helmet. The terrain below my White boots was high, round-topped mountains with steep descents into deep, thick-growth valleys. We were in a left turn, circling to line up for my drop. I could see the fire across our turning circle; it was putting out quite a bit of smoke.

“The other two guys landed pretty close to the fire,” Moose yelled into my helmet’s ear hole.

His Christmas ham-sized hand gripped my shoulder. Hard. “There are a lot of good landing spots down there! Aim for the fire, and then pick whatever spot looks best when you get low! And stay out of those tall trees!”

I nodded.

Skip made a couple of small course corrections.

Then it’s time! Moose slaps me on the back and yells, “GO!”

A last word and touch from Ken Salyer.

I’m out the door. Weightless. Quiet. A surge of adrenaline.


WHAM! Opening shock!

A swing and a twist and I look up to check out my canopy. No problem. I grab the guidelines and look for the fire.

WHOOPS – it’s behind me and getting further away every second.

I make a 180-degree turn, pull down on the front risers and begin to plane (a maneuver to increase forward travel distance), trying to get closer to the fire. I’m fighting a strong headwind as hard as I can and I’m still losing ground. I realize I’m getting low as I descend below the ridgeline and begin looking for a landing spot. I see a nice grassy area and begin to circle around a couple of tall trees.

I feel a tug and realize my chute didn’t clear the tall trees. I come to a skidding stop with my back against the trunk of a huge Ponderosa pine; the ground is way down below me. My canopy is hung up high in the top of the tree and doesn’t look like it will be coming down any time soon. Smokejumper letdown training is about to become invaluable.
* * *

Ron Maki and Jim Tracy landed in grassy areas not far from the fire. After climbing out of their jumpsuits and packing up their parachutes, they met at the fire and discussed the strategy to bring it under control. The flames were burning hotly in ewe grass and scattered sagebrush.

The swirling, gusty winds were driving it in one direction, then another. They would have to react to the changing direction of the burn and dig some fireline to stop the greatest threat.

As they waited for the Beech to make the cargo drops that would provide them with their tools, Mike Kohlhoff drifted down and landed nearby.

Ron remembers the Beech coming in very low on the first cargo pass. Moose pushed the gear bags out directly over the ridgeline, into the hotly burning fire. Bull’s eye!

Jim, Ron and Mike rushed into the blazing fire to attempt to save the equipment. The shovels and Pulaskis were desperately needed to fight the fire. They kept their eyes open for the second cargo drop; it would be critical if they lost the tools from the first drop in the fire.

The second cargo drop never came.
* * *

I was hanging in my chute, my back against the thick tree trunk. I’ve tied the descent line to the parachute risers using the advertised three half hitches. The line is routed through the harness loops and dangles down below me, not quite reaching the ground.

As I reach above to disconnect the harness release fittings, I heard and feel in my gut a loud WHUMP!

What the hell was that?

The noise was baffling, but I could only afford to think about it for a few seconds. I had to get out of that tree and go fight a fire.

I slid down the nylon line until it ran out, and I fell the final few feet to the ground. I looked back up at my parachute and decided it was there to stay; any attempt to salvage it would either be too dangerous or too destructive to the parachute. I’d have to explain that to Wayne Webb (MYC-46) when we got back. Wayne wouldn’t be happy.

I scrambled out of the reserve chute, harness and jumpsuit and headed up the hill toward the fire.

By the time I arrived, the others had the fire pretty much under control. I grabbed a shovel with a slightly singed handle and began attacking some of the hot spots.
It wasn’t long before all four of us had noticed a thin column of smoke rising from a valley about two to three miles away. We all came to the same conclusion, almost simultaneously, that our plane had possibly gone down after the first cargo drop and before the second.

As the reality of what was happening began to sink in, a big, empty space began to develop, like a black hole, in my stomach. My fun meter was no longer pegged to the right. I realized what that loud “WHUMP” was.

We discussed drawing straws to decide which two of us would go over to investigate the second fire, but decided that because there was no way we could reach the site before dark, that we would defer the decision until the next morning.
* * *

The lookout on Norton Ridge had called in the original smoke, which would soon become known as the Norton Creek Fire. He had watched the jumpers dropped from afar and shortly after had noticed the second column of smoke.
* * *

The smokejumper dispatcher at McCall had lost radio contact with the Johnson Flying Service Twin Beechcraft shortly after the pilot reported the original fire in sight. When he got word of the second fire from the Norton Ridge lookout, he suspected the worst. He reached for the phone to call Idaho City.
* * *

Idaho City was a satellite smokejumper base for the McCall facility. The Idaho City Neds (first-year jumpers: “Ned, the new guy”) had finished their training at McCall the week before and the veteran jumpers completed their refresher jumps before that. The base was just gearing up for the fire season, preparing packs, settling into the loft and bunkhouses. This would be their first fire jump of 1965.

James B. “Smokey” Stover (MYC-46), base foreman of the Idaho City “Rock Pile,” took the call from the McCall dispatcher. He listened intently, copying down the fire’s location, then he acknowledged the information and slowly hung up the phone. He lit up a cigarette and went to round up a pilot and the four jumpers at the top of the jump list.
* * *

The flight to the fire in the Idaho City Beech was so filled with tension it could be cut with a dull Pulaski. The pilot, Ray O’Brien, knew it would be a tricky drop. The sun was getting low and the shadows growing long; the air was filled with wind shears, mountain waves, down drafts and the valleys were steep and deep and the mountaintops were high in the thin air.

One airplane, exactly like the one he was flying, had already – he was pretty certain – lost the battle with Mother Nature.

Smokey Stover, who would be the spotter on this drop, sat in the right seat of the Beech, scanning the terrain ahead, looking for the telltale smoke. He knew just about all of the McCall jumpers; most were dear friends of many years. He hated to think of losing any of them.

Clarence “Ty” Teichert (IDC-55) was scheduled to jump first; he was an 11-year veteran squad leader with 110 career jumps. He was also very familiar with the McCall jumpers. So was Marion Horton (IDC-63), a three-year veteran with 29 career jumps, who was scheduled to go out second.

Wayne Sugg (IDC-65), a first-year Ned who’d never made a fire jump, was due out third.

Dick Graham (IDC-58), an eight-year veteran with 61 jumps was due to go out last. Dick was especially apprehensive because his brother, Allan Graham (MYC-64), was a second-year jumper out of McCall that summer.

They spotted both fires at about the same time and began to circle. The larger fire was in a saddle near the top of a mountain. The smaller fire was deep in a valley along an arm of Norton Creek.

As they circled lower they saw what appeared to be a wing tip in the smaller fire, then an “R” appeared near the larger burn, indicating the need for a radio. They’d soon counted four jumpers on the larger fire and though still worried, some of their fears were alleviated – especially Dick Graham’s.
* * *

When the Idaho City Beech began to circle, we finally got our brains back in gear and laid out an “R” signal on the ground, requesting that they drop us a radio. They dropped one on the next pass, and we let them know our situation and that we only had two packs.

We asked them if they had the other fire in sight. They said they had and, confirming our direst fears, told us it looked pretty certain that the fire was caused by the crash of our Beech, and that they were shortly going to put four jumpers on it. They were sorry, though, that they had no extra fire packs; we would have to wait until the next morning.

They jumped into an area below the crash site, near the creek bottom, into heavy brush. One by one they disappeared from our view behind a ridgeline.
* * *

When the Idaho City crew reached the fire, they found it was small: one-eighth to one-quarter of an acre, and not going anywhere, as the vegetation on the North slopes was still green that early in the summer. The crash site itself was very small, which, along with the fact that most of the trees in the area were untouched, indicated that the plane was going straight down at impact.

Several fireplace-sized logs that were chopped from the trunk of a tree 8-10 inches in diameter confirmed the airplane’s near-vertical flight path and meant that at least one of the C-45’s propellers was turning at a high RPM to be able to chop up the tree in such a manner.

It was evident that the fire had been very intense; pools and streams of silver, molten metal were still cooling in the disturbed soil.

Once the crew had the hot spots in the wreckage under control, they began the grim task of recovering the bodies. Moose was taken out first, then Skip. They were both wrapped in cargo chutes and secured with a nylon letdown line to a single stretcher that had been dropped with the equipment.

Since the Idaho City Unit was still in the initial process of setting up for the fire season, some of the rescue equipment that would normally have been used was not yet available.

The four jumpers each took a corner of the stretcher and as darkness descended over them, fought through thick brush over very steep and rocky ground to carry the heavy burden down the mountain to their base camp alongside Norton Creek.

It had been a treacherous and exhausting trip down the mountain, and the jumpers were ready for a few hours’ rest.
* * *

When Pat Knapp was contacted by Forest Service officials to notify her of the accident, she requested that Skip be interred at the crash site.
* * *

When it was confirmed that a smokejumper plane had gone down and that there had been fatalities, the smokejumper chaplain, Stan Tate (MYC-53), a former McCall jumper and contemporary with Ken Salyer, was notified. Stan, who at the time was working on his doctorate in Watts, Calif., first called his wife, Lynn, who was in McCall, to inform her of the tragedy, and then set out to hitch a ride back to McCall with the Nevada Air National Guard.
* * *

By sundown, the wind had died down and our fire was down to some scattered hot spots that probably wouldn’t last till morning. We built a campfire and using the “bleep” method (you throw a can of food into the fire; when the can makes a bleep sound it’s ready to eat) heated a few cans of grub we’d salvaged from the fire.

As we ate in silence, we watched the almost-full moon rise in the eastern sky. We’d heard on the radio that our two friends had been recovered from the wreckage and were ready to be picked up in the morning.

There was very little conversation around the campfire that night; we were in a state of shock. A few hours before, we’d been on top of the world, as high and full of ourselves as only young smokejumpers could be. Now, we were about as low as humanly possible – approaching the gates of Hell.

We spent the night like zombies, dragging our tools around the fireline, catching a little sleep when possible; Ron and Jim in the two bed rolls that had survived the fire, Mike and I wrapped in the one cargo chute. Memories of Skip and Moose pushed, uncalled upon, into our thoughts constantly.
* * *

Lynn Tate, Stan’s wife, upon hearing of the disaster, first contacted Mary K. Salyer to give her what comfort she could; then she visited Pat Knapp.

Pat told Lynn of her wishes for Skip to be buried in the wilderness with his aircraft. She also told Lynn that she didn’t think the Forest Service officials took that request very seriously. Lynn told Pat that she would see what she could do about that.

Day Two
Dawn, Saturday, July 10, 1965, found us dirty, depressed and using our last can of water to brew some smokejumper coffee.

We were enjoying the muddy brew when the Idaho City Beech flew over and contacted us on the radio. We reported that the fire was out, dead cold, and we didn’t really need an equipment drop. They acknowledged that and said to prepare a helicopter landing zone and be ready to be picked up later in the day.

We were in a saddle on the ridgeline. A flat spot up the hill a short way needed only a minimal amount of preparation to make an excellent landing zone.

As we went to work on the helo pad we saw a helicopter descending down the valley toward the crash site. We watched until it disappeared behind the ridgeline that blocked our view of the crash site.
* * *

The Idaho City crew watched the helicopter land in a small meadow beside Norton Creek. As the rotor blades wound down, two men – one in uniform – exited the cabin and approached the crew. They introduced themselves as the sheriff and the coroner of Valley County. They asked the jumpers several questions pertaining to their knowledge of the accident.

They were then taken to the casualties where they conducted a preliminary investigation. The jumpers then hiked with them up the hill to inspect the aircraft’s wreckage.

When the officials were satisfied that they had all the information they required, Skip and Moose were put into black, rubberized body bags and loaded into the helicopter. The sheriff and coroner climbed aboard, waved good-bye and the helicopter lifted off and headed for the airfield at Indian Creek.
* * *

We had finished preparing the flat spot suitable for a helicopter pick-up and were resting from the task when the Valley County helicopter departed the crash site. We watched, knowing it carried our brother smokejumper and pilot, until it disappeared in the west.

Ron Maki grabbed a shovel and announced he was going to take a walk down to the trees. The rest of us began picking through the few cans of food that we’d rescued from the fire.

We soon saw Ron returning from his “walk in the trees,” and it appeared that he was carrying a shovel in each hand. When he got closer, we could see that one of the shovels was actually a very large rattlesnake with a mush melon-sized lump, indicating that he’d recently enjoyed a tasty lunch.

I was delighted as I’d always wanted to try rattlesnake steaks, and I volunteered to clean and cook the impressive reptile.

Ron reluctantly handed me his trophy, but not before making me promise to return the skin and rattles (Ron, to this day, still has that snakeskin. He claims it is spotted with fire retardant, but since I don’t remember any fire bomber or slurry stains at the fire, I think it is more likely that someone threw up on it. But no one has stepped forward to admit that).

Mike and Jim watched me closely, skepticism and doubt clouding their faces.

To begin the evisceration, I made a surgeon-like incision, with my Buck lock-blade, from rattle to neck stump. When I opened the stomach cavity there was this huge, gooey, half-digested rodent smiling at me.

Kaboom! A malodorous stench that would have put a skunk to shame erupted from the snake like the explosion of a land mine.

I dropped the evil serpent like a live grenade and we all staggered backward several steps.

Lunch was no longer an option.
* * *

The Forest Service bureaucracy, because of the constant pressure applied by Pat Knapp and Lynn Tate, and the fact that it was too late to bury Skip with his aircraft had come up with a compromise: Skip was in the Valley County helicopter, at Indian Creek airfield, which was temporarily grounded because of high winds.

The Valley County sheriff and coroner didn’t have any objections; they just wanted the wind to die down so they could go home, and they had plenty of labor available in the form of four smokejumpers who, conveniently, had been the last four to jump out of Skip’s airplane.

It was decided that Byron H. “Skip” Knapp III would be buried at Indian Creek and the four Norton Creek smokejumpers from McCall would provide the burial detail.
* * *

It was almost dark by the time the winds died down enough for a helicopter to pick us up. We arrived at Indian Creek shortly after the Valley County helicopter had departed. The ranger at Indian Creek, wearing suspenders and a Smokey Bear hat, met us and explained why we were there, instead of home at McCall: We were to spend the night, then, in the morning we were to choose a suitable site and bury Skip.

The ranger led us to a small, one-room cabin with bunks, a sink and an outhouse.

There wasn’t much small talk that night before we finally turned in. We were alone with our thoughts. It had been a long two days that had been too full, and tomorrow was not a day we were looking forward to.

Day Three
We were awake before the sun came up on Sunday, July 11, 1965. When it was light enough outside that we could walk around without breaking a leg, we went looking for a burial site.

After we had rejected a couple of possibilities, we came upon an area that we all agreed would be perfect for the final resting place for Skip Knapp. It was a grassy area in the shade of a grove of large pines. The ground rose slightly to the north and to the south. The view overlooked the Indian Creek runway. Beyond that the Middle Fork of the Salmon River flowed steadily through the deep canyons.

It was a beautiful, scenic, peaceful and secluded location where, if I were ready to be buried, would like to be buried.

We returned to the cabin, and it wasn’t long before the ranger arrived, still in his suspenders and Smokey Bear hat. He led the way to a large barn, unlocked a padlock on the door and ushered us inside. The barn was dark, and empty except for a rubberized body bag containing Skip’s remains.

Using handles that were sewn into the bag, the four of us carried Skip to the gravesite we had chosen. Taking turns, we used our tools with the singed handles from the fire to dig around and hack at the large tree roots.

It was hard work and because of the roots and rocks and the need to swing the Pulaski, the grave took on an odd shape with large dimensions. Finally, we deemed the hole to be deep enough but, not knowing any burial protocol, went off to find the ranger to get final approval for our asymmetric open grave.

When the ranger returned to the site, he gave the grave a very close inspection, then granted us his approval and told us to place Skip into the pit to make sure everything was okay.

We all expressed approval of our workmanship, and it was decided that prior to filling in the grave it would be proper to hold a short memorial ceremony.

The ranger removed his hat; we all bowed our heads and he offered a simple but emotional prayer, then invited us to offer a few words, if we wished, in memory of Skip.

The actual words that we uttered that morning were few and have been lost on the gentle breeze that was blowing through the pines, but their sincerity and heartfelt emotion will remain in that hallowed ground and within us, forever.

When the grave was filled in we placed a cross, fashioned out of pine branches, on the mound of fresh earth over the grave, to serve as a temporary marker until a permanent memorial could be installed.

The site was later designated a historical cemetery.

We were four young, arrogant, bulletproof smokejumpers who only two days before had been Kings of the World. Emperors of the Universe.

Now we were four kids, insignificant little creatures, crawling along the forest floor, humbled by Mother Nature’s fierce mountain wilderness.

Of course, being smokejumpers, we couldn’t be humbled for long, but we’d never be quite so arrogant again.

That afternoon we were flown back to McCall in a replacement Beech from Marana, Ariz.

On Sunday, July 11, 1965, the same day the four of us interred Skip’s body at Indian Creek and Pat Knapp’s 30th birthday, a memorial for Skip was held at the Episcopal Church in McCall.

The next day, an outdoor service was held for Byron Harry Knapp III at the Bioscathedral of Indian Creek Guard Station and airfield. Several chairs were set up around Skip’s grave in that grassy grove of pine trees overlooking Indian Creek airstrip and the Salmon River.

Skip’s parents, wife and four young sons flew in for the service in their twin engine, six-passenger Beechcraft. Friends of the family, smokejumpers and Forest Service officials also flew in to attend the funeral ceremony.

Dr. Tate conducted the services. He tells the story of a Swainson’s hawk that was circling overhead during the ceremony, then landed on a branch above the altar and appeared to be observing the proceedings.

The ground was consecrated, and then, at the request of the family, Tate read a commendation from the Book of Common Prayer:

“In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother Skip; and we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless him, the Lord make his face to shine upon him and be gracious unto him, the Lord lift up his countenance upon him and give him peace. Amen.”

At the conclusion of the ceremony, the Swainson’s hawk took off and spiraled upward, like a jet fighter, until it was lost from sight.

Later that summer, a plaque commemorating Skip’s birth and death and with a line from one of his poems (he was the author of a book of poetry titled: “Random Thoughts on Social Evolution and Nature: Poems,” published by The Crackerbarrel) replaced the temporary marker we’d made out of pine branches.

The line on the marker at Skip Knapp’s grave at Indian Creek reads: “In Knowledge that God’s way is right – Skip”
* * *

On Wednesday, July 14, 1965 at 2 p.m., there was a funeral held for Kenneth Neal Salyer at St. Andrews Episcopal Church in McCall. All of the McCall and Idaho City jumpers attended; Missoula had agreed to cover for us for the day.

My main concern that morning was what in the world I was going to wear. I had no suit, no tie, no Sunday-go-meeting clothes whatsoever. My best dress-up, off-duty, have a beer at the Cellar or the Shore Lodge outfit was a clean pair of Levis, a snap-button plaid cowboy shirt and a pair of somewhat-worn sneakers. I opted for White boots, with a little saddle soap, instead of the sneakers.

Several of us from the barracks piled into one of the green pickups and headed for the small chapel at the edge of town. We were all wearing White boots.

The little church was bursting at the seams, filled to overflowing with smokejumpers and locals who were friends of Mary and Ken Salyer.

I found a place to stand by a window, open to provide fresh air for the congregation.

Rev. Stanton Davis Tate conducted the services: His eulogy told of Moose’s being a champion wrestler and star football player, but despite his size and strength, a gentle, sensitive soul.

Gazing out the window I remembered the year before, when during my Ned training I seriously pulled some stomach muscles doing Allen rolls off the back of a pickup. It was painful to walk, impossible to do sit-ups or The Rack. Moose could have washed me out right then.

Instead, he came up to the barracks, where I was lying on my bunk in agony, and gave me a girdle-like affair, constructed of heavy canvas and leather straps and buckles that he said he found in some storage locker.

Even though I still couldn’t do sit-ups or The Rack, I could do Allen rolls and that damned girdle got me through Ned training. I guess Moose saw something in me worth saving.

Stan continued with the eulogy, telling stories of fires he and Ken had fought together, of his spirituality and sensitivity, and how he had met his wife to be and love of his life, Mary K., while they were in math class together at Boise Junior College.

Stan cleared his throat and went on, his voice cracking, clearly devastated by the loss of his close friend. He read several of his and Ken’s favorite scriptures, then asked for comments from the congregation.

Wayne Webb stood off to the right side and faced the group: “We can summarize Ken’s good life in one sentence. He always kept his promises.”

After the benediction Rev. Tate announced that the smokejumpers had passed the hat and had purchased a purebred Black Labrador puppy for Skip and Pat’s four children.

Several days later, Ken Salyer’s burial service was held in Boise, Idaho; he was laid to rest in the Morris Hill Cemetery.
* * *

In 1995, Skip Knapp’s second son, Doug Roloff, alone, made a very special journey in an attempt to find the crash site on Norton Creek, to connect with the place where his father was taken away from him. He did, finally, arrive at the site, even though the actual location had been incorrectly recorded by the Forest Service.

In ensuing years, Doug returned to the crash site several times, sometimes accompanied by his brothers, to take photographs, draw maps and examine the wreckage. On one occasion he returned a canteen (quite possibly mine), that he had recovered and to which attached a permanent engraved commemorative plaque, as a marker to identify the mishap and honor those involved.

These journeys would provide the basis for some great stories that are begging to be told.

An interesting footnote to Doug Roloff’s journeys to Norton Creek is that several of the photographs he took seem to show that one of the engines may not have been powering its propeller at the time it made its impact with the ground.

That would mean that “engine failure” could be added to the list of “probable cause factors” that the NTSB assigned to this accident.

Author’s Notes
Memories: The human mind is an amazing instrument, and its memory capacity is unbelievable. Picture the warehouse where Indiana Jones’s lost ark was stored, only full of filing cabinets. HUGE capacity!

The problem lies in the filing and retrieval system. Picture again a harried secretary, arms full of files, rushing to put those files into the correct cabinets. Then when you try to remember something, the secretary runs back into the huge warehouse, grabs what files she can find and rushes back to the front office.

Over the years the filing cabinets fill up and the secretary begins to show her years. My beautiful, voluptuous, efficient secretary of my twenties is now a grumpy old crone, with pencils sticking out of a gray bun at the back of her head, pushing a walker. My retrieval system has gone to hell.

Putting all the memories together of the six surviving smokejumpers of both fires, despite the combined bungling of our elderly recall secretaries; I was able to scrape together a fairly accurate account of the events of those few days.

There were holes and discrepancies in all of our perceptions and several outright conflicts in what we remembered. For instance, one of the Idaho City jumpers remembers that they didn’t drop us a radio, while the other definitely remembers dropping us one.

Did we put out an “R,” a signal requesting a radio? I don’t remember specifically, but of course we would have, once we suspected our plane had gone down. Did we get a radio? Yes – how else would we have known for certain our plane had crashed? That’s one way that discrepancies were resolved.

Another way that I treated memory discrepancies was with available records (smokejumper databases and Smokejumper magazine, NTSB reports, newspaper articles, maps, moon phase calculator, Internet and official records). Other holes were filled in by using logical assumptions, some speculation, and where necessary, a little creative license.

“The Norton Creek Disaster” may have some historical mistakes, but it is as close to the truth as, given the existing constraints, I could make it. Any mistakes or historical deviations are my responsibility and mine alone. The italics are mine and for the most part represent my own vivid recollections.

Thanks to Leo Cromwell (IDC-66) and Carl Gidlund (MSO-58) for their help in accessing applicable records and finding details and locating participants of this story: Wayne Sugg, Mike Kohlhoff, Dick Graham and Jim Tracy for their sharp memories and enjoyable telephone conversations; Ron Maki for his timely recollections and for driving all the way to Julian for an enjoyable visit; Stan Tate for his invaluable help and for the copy of his book, Jumping Skyward, which was an invaluable reference and source of inspiration; and especially to Mary K. Sprague for her time, memories and generous provision of historical material; and Matt Ingram (MYC-09), rigger at the McCall Smokejumper Base Paraloft, for photographs and archival material. A special tip of the hat to Doug Roloff for the wealth of information and the treasure trove of photographs, maps, poetry and historical data he has made available.

Mrs. Pat McNerny Knapp Roloff (Skip Knapp’s widow). Two years after the mishap, Pat met and married Donald Roloff, a former Air Force navigator who is now a veterinarian. Don adopted all four of Skip’s sons; the eldest, Byron H. “Randy “Knapp IV, kept the Knapp surname in remembrance of his father and for posterity. The other three sons, Doug, Dan and Jim opted to assume the Roloff surname. Randy Knapp currently resides in Monroe, Ore. Doug Roloff lives in Boise, Idaho, with his wife and his son James Patrick Knapp Allens Roloff. James Roloff also lives in Boise and Dan Roloff, the youngest, calls Eagle, Idaho, his home.

The Black Labrador puppy, a female named Cookie that the smokejumpers passed the hat for, lived a long, happy life with four extremely active boys and died of natural causes.

Mrs. Mary K. Stuart Salyer Sprague (Ken Salyer’s widow) married a former smokejumper and family friend, Lynn Sprague (MYC-59). Lynn stayed with the Forest Service for nearly 38 years, retiring as the regional forester in California. Mary and Lynn have two sons, Mike Salyer, who is in the construction business in Boise, and Joe Sprague. The Spragues currently live in Boise, Idaho.

Dr. Stanton D. Tate was chaplain for the McCall Smokejumpers, the 124th Fighter Interceptor Group, the Canterbury House at Oregon State University and the Idaho Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution. He has worked for Gritman Medical Center and Latah Health Services in Moscow, and Idaho Juvenile Justice Commission. He taught at the University of Idaho and Boise State University. Stan and his wife, Lynn, currently live in their own Bioscathedral in Meridian, Idaho.

James B. “Smokey” Stover was the smokejumper foreman of the Idaho City “Rock Pile,” from 1948 to 1969, and of the Boise base until retirement in 1972. Smokey passed away in May 2004.

Clarence D. “Ty” Teichert jumped for a number of years in conjunction with teaching junior high school science in Caldwell, Idaho, until multiple sclerosis cut short his jumping career and his life.

Marion H. Horton served in Vietnam after jumping, then returned to Idaho where he worked in the insurance business in Boise and ran a fruit ranch in Emmett. He died on Dec. 6, 1995, in Boise, Idaho.

Richard W. Graham went to work that fall for Intermountain Aviation in Marana, Arizona, for seven years, then farmed in Payette County until 1990, when he began a career teaching 4th grade in Payette, Idaho. Dick retired in 2009 and now lives in St. Louis, Missouri.

Wayne H. Sugg went on to jump three more seasons, pursued a career in Human Resource Management and is currently enjoying retirement in McCall, Idaho.

James H. Tracy worked around the country in various specialties including aviation and software. He is currently retired in McCall, Idaho.

Dr. Ronald J. Maki went into the Army after smokejumping, then went back to school. He graduated in Clinical Psychology from San Diego State University. Among other interesting assignments, Ron worked in the California Penal System. He is currently retired in San Diego and travels around the country with his wife in their motor home.

Michael E. Kohlhoff, Esq. graduated in 1966 from Lewis and Clark College and went on to the University of Oregon School of Law. He worked in private practice and district attorneys’ offices and is currently the city attorney for Wilsonville, Ore.

Me? I became a flyboy. But that’s another story.